Circular Economy has the potential to drive a $108 billion gain for the global economy by 2050. – MPI

Circular Economy has the potential to drive a $108 billion gain for the global economy by 2050.

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A UN report indicates that expenditures related to waste management could decrease from $640 billion to $270 billion by 2050 while simultaneously contributing to a $108 billion gain for the world economy.

Waste Management

Waste is a complex global issue affecting all aspects of society, from the environment to public health and the economy. It consists of discarded waste that no longer has immediate use for those who generated it. The increase in population and consumption has contributed to a significant rise in waste generation worldwide.

There are different types of waste, including organic waste, plastics, paper, glass, metal, electronics, among others. How we handle these wastes can have profound impacts on the environment and people’s health. For example, improper waste disposal can lead to soil, water, and air pollution, posing risks to wildlife and humans.

Furthermore, waste can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn can exacerbate climate change. Proper waste management is essential to mitigate these negative impacts. This includes practices such as recycling, composting, controlled incineration, and waste reduction through measures such as reuse and reducing excessive consumption.

Awareness of the problems caused by waste has increased in recent decades, leading to initiatives and policies aimed at addressing the issue more effectively. However, there is still much to be done to address waste-related challenges comprehensively and sustainably. This requires not only individual action but also global cooperation and effective policies to promote more responsible consumption and disposal practices.

Circular Economy

The circular economy represents a systemic approach to solving global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, waste management, the use of finite resources, and pollution. It proposes the comprehensive transformation of our production and consumption system, carefully considering how we manage resources, manufacture, use, and recycle products.

Only by rethinking these aspects can we establish a thriving circular economy that seeks to benefit everyone within the limits of our planet. This approach promotes system resilience, providing the necessary tools to address the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss while also meeting fundamental social needs.

In a circular economy, material cycles mimic patterns observed in ecosystems, where there is no waste as each waste is reused to create a new product. Harmful substances are eliminated, and residual flows are segregated into biological and technical cycles.

In this system, it is crucial not only to ensure proper recycling of materials but also to maintain high quality in products, components, and raw materials. For example, the mining industry is altering its approach to the disposal of steel and rubber from trucks used in its mining operations.

As with raw materials and products, in the circular economy, the aim is to maximize the utility of energy, primarily driven by renewable sources. A recent example of this approach is the initiative by electric vehicle manufacturers to reuse discarded batteries, giving them a second life as energy storage systems.

In summary, the circular economy is not only advantageous for businesses but also for people and the environment, offering a sustainable and comprehensive solution to the global problems we face.

Without the implementation of protective measures, it is estimated that the global cost of dealing with urban solid waste could reach $640.3 billion by 2050, as revealed in the “Global Waste Management Outlook” report prepared by the UN in collaboration with the International Solid Waste Association, a Netherlands-based organization focused on waste studies and research.

After analyzing different scenarios, researchers concluded that by implementing waste generation control measures, associated costs could significantly decrease from $640.3 billion to $270.2 billion by 2050. Additionally, adopting the circular economy model, which aims to extend the lifespan of products, could result in a gain of $108.1 billion for the global economy.

The report highlights that without effective measures, global waste production could reach 3.78 billion tons in 2050, representing a 56% increase compared to 2020 figures, when 2.12 billion tons of waste were generated.

In addition to economic impacts, the UN report emphasizes that excessive waste production, its transport, and processing significantly contribute to climate change due to high greenhouse gas emissions. Improper waste disposal also results in biodiversity loss, with soil contamination harming fauna and flora, thus affecting local communities.

Given the current pace of waste production, the environmental and climate impacts projected for 2050 could severely compromise quality of life and public health, with a 91% increase in greenhouse gas emissions. However, by adopting a controlled waste generation approach, a reduction in emissions of up to 69% is estimated, potentially reaching a negative rate of 159% with the implementation of the circular economy.

Scenario in South America

In South America, only about 5% of the waste produced in 2020 was directed to recycling, while over 60% was sent to landfills. The remainder was categorized as uncontrolled disposal, involving waste incineration. In comparison, in Europe, over 40% of waste is recycled. The report highlights that while recycling is an important practice, waste prevention from the outset is a more effective approach to waste management.

Waste-To-Energy plants, which convert waste into electricity through incineration, are already widely used in more industrialized European and Asian countries, accounting for about 42% of waste generated in Northern Europe. However, this method has not yet been adopted in South America.

Barriers to Solution

The report identifies the lack of recognition of the urgency of the waste generation problem as one of the main barriers to action by world leaders. It also emphasizes the need for more data, funding, and knowledge to drive the circular economy agenda and understanding of the relationship between waste and climate change. It concludes that moving towards a circular economy and a zero-waste approach is essential for a sustainable, secure, and accessible future.

Danielle Berry
Danielle Berry

an editor at MPI since 2023.

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